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What "not a target" means in the New York Times, and why self-serving statements (like that issued by FCR re Ridge Hill) should be checked

Well, I sent my post critiquing the New York Times's coverage of the Ridge Hill indictments (in which developer Forest City Ratner was cited but not indicted) and got the following response back from Senior Editor/Standards Greg Brock:
I had two editors go over your note and I agree with them that no correction or Editors' Note is warranted on any of these points. You might want to consider writing a Letter to the Editor about your thoughts on our journalistic efforts and how we could have improved this article. But there were no errors here and no violation of any ethics/standards policy that would merit an Editor's Note.
First, consider the implicit sneer (and not the first one) in Brock's invitation to me to write a letter with my "thoughts" on the Times. The newspaper has never printed a letter from me and has very little space for letters.

And my analysis does not consist of random "thoughts;" rather, it's backed up by clear evidence. We just read the evidence differently.

"Referred imprecisely"

Moreover, Brock--perhaps because I didn't raise the point--ignored that the Times regularly uses the phrase "referred imprecisely," as it has in several corrections, which, if not absolute errors, try to clear things up for the reader.

Brock in October 2007 told an interviewer:
I don’t know if you read our corrections much, but we often say we referred “imprecisely” to something, which means that we weren’t 100 percent wrong.

Misleading readers

So I will contact the Public Editor because, however much Brock and his colleagues circle the wagons, the Times's performance misled readers--and the bottom line is serving the reader.

And there can be serious consequences. As noted below, sometimes after a subject claims he's "not a target" of an investigation he gets indicted and convicted.

(I ran my arguments by several journalistic friends, who were divided; one said my complaints were completely valid but the Times was not required to publish a correction or Editor's Note; still, he said, the Times should publish my letter and/or the Public Editor should respond.)

The clearest error

As I wrote, it was misleading shorthand to claim that two of those indicted "are accused of bilking two developers," one of them Forest City Ratner.

In neither case is alleged fraud--the common definition of "bilk," as used regularly in the Times (as noted by Michael D.D. White in his Noticing New York blog).

I pointed the Times to the official indictment, which tells a story that suggests that Forest City Ratner cooperated in the scheme rather than got "bilked."

Given the very minor errors the Times regularly corrects, this strikes me as a clear error worthy of correction. At minimum, it it "referred imprecisely" when using the term "bilked."

Judgment call #1: disclosure

In a 5/5/08 article on the Ridge Hill investigation, the Times offered a disclosure: that Forest City Ratner "partnered with The New York Times to build its new headquarters." In this most recent article there was no such disclosure, though the articles are of similar import.

In June 2005, then Public Editor Byron Calame wrote, in regard to an interview with Bruce Ratner:
The New York Times, I believe, has an obligation to alert readers when they are reading substantive articles about a company or individual with whom the newspaper has some business or professional relationship.
The latest article surely meets that standard. But the Times has been so inconsistent that the editors can defensibly say that no policy was violated. But the current Public Editor, Clark Hoyt, should chastise the newspaper.

Judgment call #2: "not a target"

While it was certainly appropriate for the Times to quote Forest City's response about it not being a target of the investigation, the Times did not try to confirm that claim with the U.S. attorney's office Forest City's claim. In fact, when I contacted the U.S. attorney's office the day the news broke, a representative would neither confirm the claim nor offer any comment.

That seemed to me to be a violation of journalistic standards and worthy of a note. However, a search of past Times coverage shows that the newspaper has been remarkably inconsistent; in several cases, it has taken the word of sources regarding their status as a "target," but in other cases it has checked.

And, as shown below, it's better to check, because such statements can be misleadingly self-serving. After all, there's a difference between a self-serving statement and one confirmed by prosecutors, because prosecutors do at times confirm such statements.

Prosecutorial confirmation

Sometimes prosecutors, not subjects, make "not a target" official.

For example, in a 6/25/09 blog post headlined Justice Dept. Letter: Harman Is Not a Target of Criminal Inquiry. the Times reported:
In a letter made public Thursday by [Rep Jane] Harman’s office, a top Justice Department official told Ms. Harman’s lawyer that the California lawmaker “is neither the subject nor a target of an ongoing investigation by the Criminal Division.”
In a 6/13/89 article headlined JUSTICE DEPT. SAYS GRAY NOT A TARGET, the Times reported:
The Justice Department said today that Representative William H. Gray 3d, Democrat of Pennsylvania, was not the target of a criminal investigation.
Taking the subject's word

In several cases, the Times has taken a subject's word on the matter and didn't confirm with prosecutors.

In a 12/11/08 article headlined Officials Say Jackson Was ‘Candidate 5’ in Blagojevich Case , the Times quoted Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr.:
Mr. Jackson said he had spoken with federal prosecutors on Tuesday and was assured that he was not a target of the inquiry or accused of misconduct.
In a 11/18/93 article headlined 2 Brooklyn Democrats Indicted in Judicial Corruption Case, the Times reported:
A lawyer for Branford Communications, Richard Guay, said that its principal, Ernest Lendler, "never knew of any such arrangement, and he never would have been involved in one." Mr. Guay added, "He has been told that he is not a target of this investigation."
In a 10/22/92 article headlined Ex-I.R.S. Agent Is Indicted On Affidavit, the Times reported:
But Mr. McGuire said yesterday that prosecutors in the Public Integrity Section had told him he was not a subject of any investigation.
Some checking

In a 5/15/07 article headlined Swiss Investigating BAE in Money Laundering Case, the Times followed up with an Editor's Note that both reported a subject's claim and checked with prosecutors:
[The article] noted a report in The Guardian, a British daily, that said Swiss investigators could examine accounts held by Wafic Said, a Syrian financier who helped broker a $79 billion arms contract between BAE Systems and Saudi Arabia two decades ago. Mr. Said could not be reached by The Times before the article was published.

After the article was published, Mr. Said received a letter from the Swiss authorities that stated he was not now a target of the investigation, that his accounts were not being examined and that he was not considered a witness in the case. His lawyer provided a copy of the letter, dated May 16, to The Times. Swiss prosecutors declined to comment on the letter or on the case in general.
Interestingly, the Times acknowledged it should have made a greater effort to obtain a response from Said. But it didn't take him at his word, either.

In a 10/13/99 article headlined Bank of New York Executive Resigns in Laundering Inquiry, the Times reported:
Mr. Arkin said Ms. Kagalovsky is not a target of the Federal investigation and is not formally cooperating with it, but said she is prepared to answer any questions posed to her. ''We have nothing to hide,'' he said.

...The United States Attorney's Office in Manhattan and the Federal Bureau of Investigation declined to comment on Ms. Kagalovsky's resignation. The bank has not been charged with wrongdoing and has been cooperating with the inquiry.
Why it matters

Why is it important to check? Because sometimes self-serving statements turn out to be misleading.

In a 6/3/93 article headlined EX-OFFICIAL ADMITS FRAUD IN MISSOURI, the Times reported:
William Webster, the former state attorney general who lent his name to a major Supreme Court abortion ruling, pleaded guilty today to Federal charges of conspiracy and misapplication of public funds.

...Throughout the gubernatorial campaign, Mr. Webster insisted to reporters and to the public that he was not a target of the Federal inquiry. Prosecutors disclosed in court today that Mr. Webster had been informed in November 1991 that he was being investigated.
More recently, the Times reported, in a 12/20/06 article headlined Bruno Is Subject of Inquiry by F.B.I., the Times reported:
The New York Senate majority leader, Joseph L. Bruno, one of the three men who effectively control state government, said Tuesday evening that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was looking into his business interests.
He said he was told that he was not a target of the investigation.

Mr. Bruno said he did not believe that the inquiry would affect his ability to serve as majority leader.

“I am guilty of nothing, so why would it impact my ability to do anything?” he said.

The F.B.I. refused to confirm or deny any investigation.
Well, we know how that turned out: on 12/7/09, Bruno, now out of office, was convicted on two federal felony counts.